President Nguyen Phu Trong: Vietnam's Xi?

Updated: Mar 4, 2019

Following the death of previous President Tran Dai Quang in September, the Vietnam National Assembly voted to install Nguyen Phu Trong as the new President on 23rd October. Trong also concurrently holds the position as General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee (CPVCC), and won the vote for a Presidential role with a 99.8% majority. The last person to have held both the positions of President and General Secretary was Ho Chin Minh.

Trong, a Hanoi native, was still a student when he joined the communist party. Immediately after graduating from the Hanoi General University with a degree in Linguistics, he joined the Study Review (now Communist Review), the theoretical and political agency of the Communist Party. Throughout his career, he obtained a PhD in Politics (party building), learned Russian, became Editor-in-chief of the Communist Review, Secretary of the Hanoi Party Committee and Secretary of the Central Military Commission, amongst other roles.

His election to the Presidential position is unprecedented due to the CPVCC’s central idea of “democratic centralism”, or consensus-based decision making. While this is true of the Communist Party in general, it is usually associated with the highest level of decision making in the State: the “four pillars”, which are: the General Secretary, the President, the Prime Minister, and the Head of the National Assembly. By taking on the dual roles of both General Secretary and President, Trong effectively doubles his power amongst the “pillars” and has a larger stake in decision making. This rapid increase in power has led some to draw parallels between the situation in Vietnam and China.

Similar to Trong, Chinese President Xi Jin Ping broke convention earlier this year by removing Presidential term limits, allowing him to rule for life. Xi is also both the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and President.  Most strikingly, both Trong and Xi are known for their aggressive stances towards corruption, and both have taken on wide-sweeping anti-graft campaigns. Earlier this year, Trong spearheaded reforms within the communist party to review its members more stringently, following high-profile corruption trials of party members last year. It is perhaps these campaigns that have helped them to consolidate power, allowing them to remove politicians not loyal to them under the guise of corruption.

Furthermore, it seems that Trong’s presidency indicates coming warmer relations between China and Vietnam. Currently, China and Vietnam share strong economic relations. China has massive investments in Vietnam as part of the Belt and Road initiative, and according to Vietnamese media, trade between the two communist states is expected to reach USD100 billion. On the other hand, China and Vietnam do have competing claims in the South China Sea.The Vietnamese people are also wary of the Chinese due to the conflict-filled history between both states that stretch back hundreds of years. Nonetheless,Trong is purported to have close ties with the Communist Party in China. He himself has sent cadres to China to learn from their system.

It might be tempting to characterise Trong’s presidency as the rise of another strongman leader as well as a consequence of Chinese influence.However, there are facts that point to the opposite. Trong has been a long-time advocate of “democratic centralism” within the Communist Party, and it would be strange for him to abandon this system, regardless of how much power he holds. Additionally, the Communist Party had in the past discussed merging the roles of General Secretary and President. This idea was rejected by Trong, who feared that such a move could give the President too much power. Lastly, it seems perhaps circumstantial that Trong was the one to take on the Presidential role. According to the protocol of the Communist Party, a Presidential candidate must have served on the Politburo for more than a term. Reports say that of those who qualified, three were already amongst the “four pillars” (including Trong), and the other two were not considered to be capable enough by other Party members to be President.  Thus, it appears that Trong’s ascension to President is perhaps not entirely indicative of a shift towards a massive consolidation of power a-la Xi.

Nonetheless, we cannot discount Trong’s apparent inclinations towards China as well as the fact that it is now much easier for him to have his way amongst the “four pillars”, whether he chooses to or not. How Vietnam’s foreign policy changes under this new leadership can only be understood in time.

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